By Sonja Arsham Kuftinec
“Can you hear me?” asked Nathan soft yet firm. “I don’t like to use a microphone because I was raised in an Orthodox household.” It was a chilly December morning of the Sabbath in Westchester New York, and an array of silvery heads at the Kol Ami Synagogue variously nodded or called for Nathan to speak up. He strengthened his voice but also issued an invitation. “Come closer,” he smiled, “there are a few seats open next to Osama.” He gestured to his Palestinian partner, seated beside Rabbi Shira Milgrom and American Friends of Combatants for Peace director, Beth Schuman.
I found myself somewhat spontaneously at the synagogue where my husband had celebrated his bar mitzvah thirty years ago. My mother-in-law, Margie, had thought I might be interested in this Saturday talk without knowing of my prior relationship with Combatants for Peace. Ten years before I had accompanied my Israeli friend, Chen, as he co-facilitated the first CFP theater session in Shouffa, a village near the Palestinian town of Tul Karem. Since that time, I had invited Chen and various Palestinian partners to theater workshops and university conferences. But I hadn’t experienced the power of CFP presentations in a Jewish congregational setting.
First CFP theater workshop Shouffa, 2007
Over the course of an hour, Nathan and Osama masterfully engaged an attentive audience. They shared the space, using personal story, allegory, humor and Torah references to connect with this relevant audience who have the collective power to transform the conflict and its conditions.
As an organization with roots in formal and informal military actions, it’s not surprising to witness how effectively CFP deploys strategies and tactics. But where military actions rely on a framework of enmity, Combatants for Peace struggles to expand the circle of empathy, to engage in a partnership that models what it means to justly and equitably share space.
Nathan opened with the organization’s “Golden Rules”— ethics resonant with the Torah. These rules include a core belief that violence cannot be solved with violence, a commitment to binational decision-making, and to action on the ground. Meeting only to talk without actions to transform the inequity of occupation would create what CFP members refer to as a “false reality” or normalization. Actions such as harvesting olives together on Palestinian land, dismantling roadblocks, hosting a binational memorial service, and speaking at synagogues like Kol Ami, all work towards conflict transformations. Nathan also spoke of the power of creative play, for example, the use of puppets to deter violent impulses. Soldiers are trained to use violence, but if a CFP demonstration moves “off-script” through the presence of giant papier-maché birds, that impulse is slowed and/or confused. The puppets appeal not only to the humanity of the “other side” but also to the humanity of the soldier.
At the same time, CFP members gain credibility with Israeli and Palestinian publics because of their prior combat experience; they have actively practiced one mode of collective defense and found it ineffective. For a US congregation, presenters gain credibility through personal stories and shared presence.
Combatants for Peace members use such stories to illuminate and expand the circle of empathy and as a step towards shifting the conflict narratives. Each participant has his or her unique story, but the dramaturgy is similar. Stories begin by connecting with the relevant audiences (“my grandparents met in Auschwitz”; “my family snuck back into Jerusalem in 1967”). They then illuminate the conditions of the conflict (“I felt eager to defend my country”; “I knew Jews only as soldiers who terrorized my school and killed my friend”) that lead to the desire for defensive containment or revenge. The stories then shift to the transformations that emerge from humanizing the other, often with a dramatic peripeteia, or illuminating turning point, and the resultant decision to take action by struggling in partnership towards just peace. The narratives emphasize the turn from violent to non-violent struggle and the parallels of the Jewish Israeli and Palestinian journeys, but also lean into the conditions of inequality wrought by Israeli military presence in Palestinian lands. Osama spoke of connecting with an Israeli woman who critiqued elements of her army service, but also of settler control of water tables in Hebron. Nathan spoke of perspective-shifts—seeing his presence in a tank from the point of view of Bethlehem residents. But he also spoke of the selfishness of his work—the “price tag” of the circle of violence for himself and his children and the cost of shutting the part of his brain critical of his own actions as a soldier. In CFP, a just peace is pursued in partnership for “selfish” reasons.
Kol Ami congregants
An open question and answer session with congregants followed the stories, guided by Rabbi Shira to focus less on expressing received political understandings and more on “learning what we don’t know and how we move forward”. Osama spoke concretely of how younger generations can learn new narratives of “Yehudi” through witnessing actions: when Jewish Israelis work side by side with Palestinians to rebuild a destroyed home or create a playground, the idea of what it means to be Jewish shifts. These material examples of binational creation rather than destruction offer a model of Jewishness to Palestinian children who have previously only seen Israeli Jews as “soldiers.”
Rabbi Shira concluded the session by recalling a recent Civil Rights trip that a number of congregants had taken together. By drawing a connection to this history, by linking the ethics of CFP’s work to the Torah, by modeling partnership, Nathan and Osama offered a vision of a shared future grounded in mutual self-interest.
While I am not Jewish, I thought about the shema. In my understanding, this ritual prayer is a cornerstone of Jewish faith as well as a call to “listen”. In this Westchester congregation, led by a skillful Rabbi who called Orthodox and Reform Jews together with a few non-Jews, we listened together. As a final reminder of the actions of this listening, Nathan stayed behind to attend to a congregant who had expressed in her questions a fear of Hamas. “It is my work to listen,” he noted to the Rabbi’s husband, who was urging him onward. “Especially to those who disagree.”
Sonja Arsham Kuftinec is a professor of theater at the University of Minnesota and a former facilitator with Seeds of Peace. Her work focuses on theater as a medium of conflict transformation in the Balkans, Middle East, and US.